Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe gets a literary send-off from Susan Sheehan, Thomas Beller at the Strand
10:58 am Jun. 20, 2012
The Strand Books reading billed as an "An Evening In The Park" lived up to its promise in at least one way: its pace felt like a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The Tuesday reading was meant to promote the release of the Bloomsbury book Central Park: An Anthology, but the real buzz surrounded one particular reader, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who announced Monday that he will be stepping down from his post this Fall. Benepe kept the audience waiting for over half an hour while he milled about and greeted many a well-connected friend, including a New York Times reporter he thanked for a generous profile of his career.
When Benepe finally took to the podium to introduce the new anthology, he waxed poetic about the gritty Central Park of his "delinquent youth," and the changes that have taken place there since.
"600 million dollars has been put into the park to make it safe, to make it the most beautiful park in the world," Benepe said. "It’s now a park that you can walk through at midnight and feel perfectly safe. If you had said that thirty years ago they would have said ‘What drugs are you on? Or what drugs do you want to buy?’ Now, of course, it’s glorious."
The evening’s first reader was slightly less rosy. Author Thomas Beller took to the podium and thanked Commissioner Benepe with what seemed to be a subtle character jibe. Beller recounted how during his time as editor of Open City, he’d tried to get Benepe to attend a benefit for the magazine every year.
"I became fixed on the idea that if he came to our benefit, it would change everything. So I’d be on the phone with his secretary every year asking ‘Did you get the invitation?’"
An awkward pause filled the room as Benepe smiled from his chair uncomfortably and Beller moved on. (Asked after the reading whether Benepe ever attended a benefit, Beller answered, "No. But he was very apologetic.")
Beller seemed to have larger concerns than past snubs. Namely, urban homogenization. He noted that nearly all the anthology contributors had chosen to write about the older, more dangerous Central Park.
"Look, that location of the ‘lost’ Central park, I just want to point out, it comes at such an interesting time. We’re fighting off some weird urban monoculture, where your big choice is to whether you go to the Wells Fargo on this corner, or the Bank of America on that corner," Beller said.
"As horrible as all that stuff was, as the Commissioner just alluded to, it also holds a sort of mystified, almost sanctified reward."
Beller then read an excerpt from his own essay in the collection, which detailed his adventures skateboarding among " the horseshit" in Central Park. Beller recalled a childhood blizzard, and the resulting rare illusion of Manhattan solitude.
"But such is the glory of Central Park, and its many nooks and crannies," Beller read. "That at any given time, it holds thousands of people, who feel like they are alone."
Drawing an unintentional parallel between the old and new Central Parks, author Ben Dolnick followed Beller’s reading with an essay about working at the Park’s zoo in the more sterile, Post-Giuliani era. As Dolnick detailed what he learned from the animals, Benepe checked his Blackberry several times, and often closed his eyes.
Following Dolnick, author John Burnham Schwartz read from his anthology contribution, which viewed today’s Central Park with a tempered brand of melancholy. (Schwartz is pictured, at podium, above; seated are, left to right, Dolnick, Beller, Benepe (on Blackberry), and Sheehan.)
"Last weekend I took my son to the Meadow for the first time. Call it extreme nostalgia, or perhaps a milquetoast exorcism," Schwartz read. "Above the exterior wall of the park there seemed to hang a chlorophyll radiance that I could not connect with the place I remember.
"I tentatively filled my lungs with the anticipation of its greenness, and did not tell my son about muggers, or fires, or how once, his daddy had been humiliated in a fight," Schwartz continued. "Within a few feet we walked up to a high metal fence that circumscribed the entire meadow. On the fence was a sign. My son asked me what it said and I read it to him: ‘The East Meadow is being restored, and will reopen in the Fall.’"
New Yorker icon Susan Sheehan (pictured at right) closed the reading, and recounted the Central Park of her childhood.
"I wrote about the prehistoric part, before all the troubles," Sheehan joked. "When it was idyllic; when I was young, when my mother was young."
Sheehan shared picturesque memories of feeding pigeons and eating hamburgers in the park in the 1940s. She also recalled a sign asking parkgoers not to throw rocks at the sea lions.
"Did the zoo authorities think that offering up graphic illustrations of evil would protect these glorious creatures? I had a sad feeling the opposite was true," Sheehan read. "The murder of Central Park sea lions was my first conscious example of the evil that lurked in the sheltered world."
After she finished reading, Sheehan said she had to add one more thing.
"Things come in circles in New York," Sheehan said.
"I lived through the bad days in Central Park, when someone threw a rock on the bridge above the bridal path right at a horse. But those days are gone. The park was wonderful once, and it’s wonderful again. We just have to hope it stays that way."
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